The papal splen­dours of Avi­gnon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ANN REN­NIE

On a cool and crisp Avi­gnon morn­ing in April, pi­geons coo on the cob­bled stones of old squares and young cafe work­ers sleep­walk into the day. Ven­er­ated build­ings wake to an­other day of school ex­cur­sions, snap-happy tourists and earnest pil­grims.

The Vat­i­can may be the spir­i­tual home of the world’s Catholics, but for a time in the 14th cen­tury Avi­gnon was the seat of papal power and in­flu­ence.

As French and Ital­ian car­di­nals and kings and queens and go-be­tween courtiers made deals in cor­ri­dors and an­techam­bers, peas­ants earned lit­tle more than their daily bread.

To­day, a visit to the Palais de Papes lets vis­i­tors take a peek into this in­trigu­ing episode of papal his­tory. Be­tween 1309 and 1414, seven French popes and two an­tipopes (so named be­cause an­other pope resided con­cur­rently in Rome) lived in be­jew­elled and bro­caded splen­dour in the for­ti­fied me­dieval city.

Dur­ing the depre­da­tions of the French Revo­lu­tion, the palace in­te­rior was de­stroyed, fres­coes van­dalised, an­tiq­ui­ties sold as scrap and the build­ing used as a bar­racks.

The palace is stone cold, the heavy bricks of its his­tory full of an­gels and demons, car­di­nals and courtiers, saints and sin­ners. In fact, the palace is re­ally two palaces of dis­tinct ar­chi­tec­tural style built over 30 years. The old palace re­flects Bene­dic­tine monas­ti­cism in its Ro­manesque sim­plic­ity while the new palace, with its more Gothic ori­en­ta­tion, oozes em­bel­lish­ment.

I see the rooms where the car­di­nals resided with their ret­inue of sec­re­taries and do­mes­tics. I visit the kitchen with its odd ven­ti­la­tion, a huge up­side-down stone fun­nel black­ened with bak­ing for the groan­ing ta­bles of ec­cle­sial ex­cess.

Beau­ti­ful fres­coes and ta­pes­tries adorn the walls. The themes are mainly re­li­gious, ex­cept for The Deer Room, which an­nun­ci­ates the joys of hunting with dogs, deer and fer­rets abound­ing, in­ti­mat­ing that me­dieval leisure pur­suits were not al­ways el­e­gant and chival­rous. Oddly, in the painted pis­car­ium (an ar­ti­fi­cial lake filled with fish to be served up at a ban­quet) there ap­pears to be a dol­phin. In 1969, an un­named con­ser­va­tor de­cided to leave his I-was-here mark, a tiny artis­tic anachro­nism to amuse fu­ture vis­i­tors. On one wall, I spy a small swan, its long-necked grace un­ruf­fled by the bes­tiary around it.

The pope’s bed­cham­ber is large and cold. It has the most glo­ri­ous deep blue walls upon which golden grapevines and curlicues are painted and in which nests the oc­ca­sional bird and the odd squir­rel clam­bers.

I am struck by the palace’s press­ing sense of his­tory, its gran­deur and the prospect of ghosts stalk­ing the clammy cor­ri­dors.

I me­an­der along back­streets of Avi­gnon and love com­ing across strange stat­u­ary or be­ing con­fronted by the gnarled gran­deur of di­lap­i­da­tion. I look up at the plas­ter­work on closed churches and see cherubs and vines and hooded pen­i­tents and am re­minded of ar­cane rites and rit­u­als and se­cret hereti­cal sects.

On the wa­ters out­side the city’s old ram­parts, barges ply their trade as they have done since well be­fore Ro­man times. The sun sparkles on the gilded cathe­dral statue of Notre-Dame des Doms as she gazes over the town be­low.

It’s an­other glo­ri­ous spring day in Avi­gnon, where the past taps you gen­tly on the shoul­der, dead popes slum­ber in eter­nal rest and that old man river, the Rhone, just keeps rolling along.

Avi­gnon’s Palais de Papes, seat of papal power in the 14th cen­tury

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